Chopra and Tanzi’s new book described in NY Post; I get in a lick

Intellectual stimulation will be thin today in favor of entertainment, as I got nothin’. A quick note, though, I was interviewed by Elizabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post on the topic about Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi’s new book Super Genes: Unlock the Astonishing Power of your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being (no, I’m not going to link to it), and I got a chance to correct the scientific misconceptions that this duo has been pushing for several years.

Vincentelli’s piece has a sarcastic title, “Experts think your crappy genes can be rewired with diet and exercise,” and describes a book in which a bale of conventional self-help advice (eat better, sleep, exercise, meditate, and so on), is wrapped in a veneer of woo.

The woo: Chopra and Tanzi have long intimated that modification of behavior can modify one’s DNA by changing your genes epigenetically (see my posts here, here, here, and here), and that that this epigenetic modification can be passed on to one’s offspring, modifying human evolution.  Tanzi admitted a while back that there wasn’t any evidence for this in humans, though there are a few experiments in other species showing that environmental modification can modify the DNA (adding methyl groups to some DNA bases), and that those changes can be passed on. But that modifications never lasts for more than two or three generations before it disappears, meaning that it’s impotent to affect evolution. (Evolution depends on modifications of DNA—”mutations”—that is permanent.

Despite the loud proclamations of epigenetics mavens that environmental modification drastically modifies or even overturns the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, then, that is a claim without evidence. When you hear the word “epigenetics” used as a buzzword in articles on either evolution or self-help, be extremely skeptical!

It’s not clear how much Chopra and Tanzi push this idea in their book, but they do argue that lifestyle affects gene activity, which is sometimes true. After all, eating sweets affects the production of insulin, stress changes your hormone titer, and so on—and this is due to differential turning on and off of genes. But that’s not the same thing as changing the structure of the genes themselves.

I’ll let somebody else report on SuperGenes, but Vincentelli’s article implies that the book still argues for modification of gene structure through lifestyle change. Here’s an excerpt from her piece; the emphasis is mine:

“Gene activity responds to your lifestyle — your thoughts, your feelings, your actions, your stress levels, your diet,” Tanzi, a neuroscientist at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, tells The Post.

Nope, you can’t modify the DNA sequence that’s passed on from your family. But Tanzi notes that “most of what you inherit is written in clay rather than in stone. That means you have a chance to be the sculptor.”

Pushing the reasoning further, the book suggests those changes might be passed on: “Human beings could be the first creatures in the history of life on Earth to self-direct where their evolution is going.”

Their theory is not without its detractors in the scientific community.

“There’s not a shred of evidence that humans can change their genes in a permanent way via changes in our lifestyle,” writes Jerry Coyne, from the University of Chicago’s Department of Ecology & Evolution, in response to Chopra and Tanzi’s big idea.

Yay for that link to my post; you should read it if you want to learn about the fallacies promulgated by Chopra and Tanzi.

I recognize, of course, that Chopra and Tanzi will cry all the way to the bank. But apparently what they’re offering is just a bunch of the same old (but good) medical advice, advice long promulgated by doctors and writers. The difference is that they jazz it up by saying that this has something to do with the amazing power of our DNA, which Chopra and Tanzi can tell us how to “unlock.” Apparently, though, we unlock it by meditating, eating better, and getting more sleep.

The curious thing about all this is that Tanzi is a reputable scientist who works at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, and, I’m told, has done good work on Alzheimer’s. I am baffled as to why he gets involved with Chopra, flirting with woo in a way that can only degrade Tanzi’s reputation. I can think of only one answer, which involves a capital S with a vertical line drawn through it.

42 Comments

  1. Mary Sheumaker
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Surely that’s the only reason any reputable scientist gets involved with Deepak Chopra.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      Brain damage of some sort is a credible reason too. But money is more likely.

  2. Posted November 13, 2015 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Tanzi: Ka-ching …. Tired of his pay grade in science apperently.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      It’s a bit of an indictment on our society that Chopra is rolling in money like Scrooge McDuck, while many scientists and other proper researchers struggle to get the funding they need.

      • Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Agreed.

      • sensorrhea
        Posted November 14, 2015 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        I’m afraid it’s an indictment of humanity. That means its an indictment of our genes, appropriately enough.

  3. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    It’s not a veneer of woo, it’s a deepity of woo.

    • d
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Nice. A deepity of doo, too.

      • Colin Campbell
        Posted November 16, 2015 at 3:42 am | Permalink

        Woo-doo medicine, all too undead….

  4. Posted November 13, 2015 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Whenever I see the prefix “epi” applied to any familiar word, my BS detectors turn on. Same with the prefix “meta”.

    • Ralph
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      So you’re saying Chopra’s epicure is metallize?

      • Ralph
        Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        (…metabolics is a better descriptor, but only the Brits would get it)

        • Posted November 13, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

          I see what you did there …

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      You must hate epipens.

      • Posted November 13, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        …and definitely isn’t an Epicurean….

        b&

        • Posted November 13, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know if “curean” counts as a familiar word.

          • Posted November 14, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

            It’s been around since the antediluvian….

            b&

      • Jeff Ryan
        Posted November 13, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        And would resent being called the “epitome” of anything.

  5. Posted November 13, 2015 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Determinism: Don’t take it personally, it’s just physics.

  6. Posted November 13, 2015 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Human beings could be the first creatures in the history of life on Earth to self-direct where their evolution is going.

    This is entirely possible — indeed, probable.

    But it’ll be as a result of the work begun by Dr. Venter, not through drone chant singalongs with overpriced Chopra CDs whilst fondling equally-overpriced Chopra-brand quartz jewelry.

    b&

    • Posted November 13, 2015 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      I’ve often been distressed to think that humans may be the first species to cause its own extinction.

  7. sshort
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    To be fair, Tanzi is probably thinking he should have an open mind about this.

    Then that he should open a new bank account in the Caymans.

  8. gluonspring
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    When you hear the word “epigenetics” used as a buzzword in articles on either evolution or self-help, be extremely skeptical!

    Epigenetic is the “quantum” of biology.

    • Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      I fear that “quantum” is already the “quantum” of biology.

      • Posted November 13, 2015 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        C’mon! It’s Quantum of Solace!

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I’m going to think me up a lobster claw and maybe a forehead arm!!

    • Mark R.
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      Howz about gills? That would be cool…gotta go start meditatin’ while eatin’ fish!

    • Posted November 13, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      I’m gonna think myself into a crocodile, and then a duck, thus proving creationists wrong.

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    sub

  11. W.Benson
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Another way environment can modify your genes is by sitting on a pile of cobalt-60. Darwin, Haeckel and their colleagues would, I think, have considered the resulting mayhem to be acquired traits.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      the resulting mayhem to be acquired traits.

      Ummm, I’m not so sure. You’d have to induce the changes to your genes and then successfully pass them on to offspring for the traits to be acquired.
      Let’s take Peter Parker’s mythical radioactive spider and it’s presumedly genetic changes to his biochemistry. Were those traits that he acquired from his parent’s genes recombining as sperm and egg met? No. If PP Junior came along (I forget who’s the dame in the films – MJ or Gwen? – or have the two been retconned now?), and inherited the “Spidey” genes, THEN the traits would be acquired ones.
      It would also be pretty bad news for the mother – call her MGwen – with the baby having Spidey strength while her womb lining doesn’t. Going to be nasty and messy.

      • Posted November 14, 2015 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        It would also be pretty bad news for the mother – call her MGwen – with the baby having Spidey strength while her womb lining doesn’t. Going to be nasty and messy.

        Ten-year-old boys have been known to engage in similar speculation about Superman and Lois Lane, with the general conclusion that the only way for her to avoid effects similar to a gunshot wound being for the Man of Steel to wear a kryptonite condom. But would he even be able to perform at all with one?

        b&

        • Andrikzen
          Posted November 14, 2015 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

          Trailer scene in movie Hancock.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 14, 2015 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

          this is not a new speculation. Actually, there should be a bedroom mirror – and duvet – peppered with bullet holes.
          coming from marvel-verse … are those tattered neighbours in “Smallville ?

  12. Posted November 13, 2015 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    🐾

    • rickflick
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Ant, how rapidly you are changing. At least your feet. (Adaption: harder to follow your tracks).

      • Posted November 14, 2015 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        They are not my feet; merely my cat’s paws …

        /@ / Girne (Kyrenia), Cyprus

  13. Jenny Haniver
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    It should be noted that both Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson pay homage to “Seth,” the hoary, logorrheic “spirit” channeled by Jane Roberts, whose books were all the rage in New Age circles a couple of decades ago. At the time, I tortured myself by reading the books because I had an acquaintance who was in thrall to this stuff and I needed to know just how nutty it was. It exceeded my wildest expect(or)ations. My question is: are the wacky thought processes of Chopra and Williamson due to their genes? If so, diet and exercise hasn’t done much to improve their powers of ratiocination.

  14. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    This looks very like Lamarckism, updated, to me.

    (I feel fairly charitable towards Lamarck – he was trying to explain evolution in the best way he could at the time, given the current state of knowledge. As it happens he was wrong. Deepak and Tanzi don’t have his excuse).

    cr

    • Posted November 16, 2015 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Lamarck was at least also a materialist, as far as I can tell. Chopra is not. (Ironically, he seems to be one in the personality trait rather than the metaphysical sense.)

  15. Posted November 14, 2015 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    It’s the new paradigm — epi-eugenics.

  16. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    “Human beings could be the first creatures in the history of life on Earth to self-direct where their evolution is going.”

    Well sure, with CRISPR maybe, but not with yoga.


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